The brisk approach of exams this year has likely prompted stress-induced day sessions cramming everything at the Billy B or having a breakdown over five coffees at brunch. One thing that has personally helped me cast off the pressures of exams is reading, be it twenty minutes in the morning or five hours at night, using the sunrise to scan the pages. Either way, books can be a sure way of escaping. This could be anything from delving into the fantasy fictional setting of Middle Earth to bathing in the dark, romantic passions of Cathy and Heathcliff. Personally, reading this exam season has been controversially hit-and-miss as I expanded my bookshelf with new genres, dynamic characters, and a multitude of plotlines.
Three books have been particularly important in my journey towards exam season escapism. First up, the classic Far From the Madding Crowd. Thomas Hardy’s debut novel explores a love triangle in its entirety – from hopeful beginnings to tragic endings. Next came Irish newcomer Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times. Exciting Times is a Sally-Rooney-style page-turner that tackles tough relationships and the pressures of being a young adult in the 21st century, and it was longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize. Most recently has been John Wyndham’s wacky, brave, and completely thought-provoking novel The Chrysalids, which follows the life of a deviant living in a post-apocalyptic world where to be different is to be dead.
Far From the Madding Crowd was my second Hardy novel, after having read Tess of the d’Urbervilles during my A-Levels. Re-entering the fictional region of Wessex and the rural towns of Casterbridge and Weatherbury was reminiscent of stepping into a familiar pastoral utopia. Hardy showers his prose with in-depth descriptions of agricultural life and setting, which calms down the intensity of the plot. The narrative follows the romantic entanglement between Bathsheba Everdene and three local suitors – Gabriel Oak, Farmer Boldwood, and Sargeant Troy. I found none of these characters to be particularly likeable – Bathsheba was annoyingly rash and ungrateful, Boldwood too traditional and obsessive, Troy rather the opposite, and Oak exceptionally boring. Without rooting for any of the main characters, the plot lost enticement and the reveals became predictable. But despite this, the historical and descriptive elements of the narrative were comfortable, relaxing, and easy to get lost in.
Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times came next. Having read Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations with Friends, I had high expectations. Gradually, I relaxed into the cynicism of the protagonist Ava as she berated the world around her. Ava’s sense of isolation in Hong Kong was reminiscent of the several lockdowns we endured this past year. Furthermore, the elitist social setting of Hong Kong meant there was escapism through the lavish and extravagant lifestyles of those around Ava. Alongside the economical escapism, there is romantic escapism. Ava struggles with decisiveness as she strings along both Julian and Edith throughout the narrative. The continuous rise and fall of emotions made for a compelling tale (though it resulted in me internally screaming at Ava at times!).
It came as a shock when, halfway through John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, I realised that this was the perfect dose of escapism I had needed during exam season, that it suited me better than both Far From the Madding Crowd and Exciting Times. The novel’s apocalyptic setting was distanced far enough from reality that it felt relaxing, and yet historically relevant enough to remain compelling. The fantasy plotline is charged by the juxtaposition between the laws and regulations of the society and the secretive telepathic abilities of the group created an atmosphere that threatened exposure and action at every turn. As characters develop and the plot continues the tension rises to a boiling point. Wyndham, fortunately, avoids the danger of overpopulating the narrative as George R. Martin’s Game of Thrones does so that each character reaches out the book to grab you. With clear heroes and villains, the novel is also reminiscent of a pseudo-superhero plotline – the epitome of escapism.
As exam season speeds along, reading remains one of the best ways to escape from the stresses of revising and relax. After taking a journey through genres and epochs, I discovered the freedom and creativity of a fantasy story, the beauty of a pastoral description, and how brutally ironic the title Exciting Times actually is. Whether you read every day and are in need of some new recommendations or haven’t picked up a book since leaving primary school, I sincerely encourage reading this exam season.
Image: Alexis Brown via Unsplash